Emily O’Reilly opened an investigation into how the EU executive hires special advisers for commissioners.
The Ombudswoman said she received multiple complaints about the European Commission’s advisers, and will start looking at how the executive checks to make sure the external consultants don’t have conflicts of interest.
Commissioners currently have around 40 special advisers between them. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has four special advisers, more than any other members of Commission.
O’Reilly said her office found the executive mishandled the hiring of Edmund Stoiber, a retired German conservative who advised the Commission on better regulation until 2014. O’Reilly is responsible for investigating maladministration in EU institutions.
The executive sent out a press release announcing Stoiber’s appointment three months before he was officially hired, which O’Reilly said “raised doubts” that the executive didn’t properly review Stoiber’s conflicts of interests.
Stoiber was not paid a salary but did have expenses covered during his seven year-run at the European Commission. During the same time, he also earned money as a board member of German insurer Nürnberger Versicherungsgruppe.
The Ombudswoman said she’ll examine all special advisers who worked with the executive in 2015 and 2016.
O’Reilly said she’ll check whether the Commission does enough to make sure advisers don’t have other jobs that could compromise their work with the executive.
“Whether you’re paid or not, I don’t think it makes a difference. It’s all around access and conflicts,” O’Reilly said.
“They may still have a private interest,” she added.
In a letter to Juncker dated last Friday (27 May), O’Reilly wrote that because of the advisers’ “high-level experience and skills, their advice to these decision-makers may be given more weight than advice from other sources”.
A recent complaint sent to O’Reilly’s office suggested the Commission conducted reviews of advisers’ activities to make sure they don’t have conflicts of interest, but didn’t do additional reviews if an adviser later took on a new job or had a potential conflict after starting work with an EU commissioner.
O’Reilly has separately been pressuring the executive to step up transparency measures that require lobbyists who meet with Commissioners to register their details on a public website.
In another letter to Juncker, she recommended that the European Commission tighten up rules and impose penalties on any lobbyists who don’t disclose accurate information.
“Europe needs to get a lot more serious about this,” she told journalists today.
Earlier this year, she also asked the Commission to publish minutes from meetings held by its 830 so-called expert groups.
The executive responded today (30 May) by setting up a new website detailing its expert groups and imposing diversity requirements and conflict of interest rules for the groups.
The Ombudswoman reported that EU institutions complied with 90% of her recommendations in 2014, according to the most recent figures published by her office.